Abyss Full of Tricks

This was probably my first review of a James Cameron film, published in the August 11, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. It’s a review that helps to explain, in any case, some of the reasons why I dislike Avatar. — J.R.

THE ABYSS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by James Cameron

With Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, John Bedford Lloyd, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, and Kimberly Scott.

To satisfy these new cravings of human vanity, the arts have recourse to every species of imposture; and these devices sometimes go so far as to defeat their own purpose. Imitation diamonds are now made which may be easily mistaken for real ones; as soon as the art of fabricating false diamonds shall become so perfect that they cannot be distinguished from real ones, it is probable that both will be abandoned, and become mere pebbles again. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

I happened to see The Abyss with someone who only sees about three Hollywood movies a year. In a way it proved to be an appropriate choice for him, because it’s a veritable survey of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking in the 80s, as cannily up-to-date as the latest issue of Variety.… Read more »

The Self-Aware Action Hero [on LAST ACTION HERO]

From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1993). — J.R.

LAST ACTION HERO

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John McTiernan

Written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Prosky.

The word is out:  Last Action Hero is an unmitigated disaster. The sound of studio panic was plainly audible in a report in the June 17 New York Times that Columbia Pictures threatened to sever all communications with the Los Angeles Times if it didn’t guarantee it would “never again run a story written or reported by Jeff Wells about (or even mentioning) this studio, its executives, or its movies.” Wells’s crime was a June 6 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that a test-marketing preview of Last Action Hero held in Pasadena about two weeks earlier had been disappointing. The article contained “categorical denials” from several studio executives that such a screening had ever taken place, but clearly this wasn’t enough for the industry people. As Wells told the New York Times, “You’re talking about a studio in a major meltdown mode. These guys are blitzing out here.”

I read this story only hours before seeing another “disappointing” preview of Last Action Hero in Chicago, after several weeks of hearing rumors that the picture was a “mess” and in deep, deep trouble.… Read more »

An Affair to Forget

From the Chicago Reader (October 28, 1994). Twenty-two years later, it’s hard to decide whether this stinker is as bad as Rules Don’t Apply or even worse. — J.R.

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* LOVE AFFAIR

(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Glenn Gordon Caron

Written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty

With Beatty, Annette Bening, Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Chloe Webb, Pierce Brosnan, and Kate Capshaw.


The writing and directing credits for Love Affair are legally correct but historically, aesthetically, and ethically wrong. A more accurate account of where the movie comes from, in terms of characters, plot, dialogue, and even camera placement, would have to cite the story written by Leo McCarey and Mildred Cram for Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, inspired by an extended trip McCarey and his wife took to Europe. According to McCarey, seeing the Statue of Liberty slide into view as the ship approached the New York harbor gave birth to the plot: a man and a woman, each engaged to someone else, meet on such a liner, bound for Europe from New York, and fall in love. On their way back they make a date to meet at the top of the Empire State Building six months hence if they’ve both been able to shake loose from their commitments and if the man, a wealthy playboy who’s never held a job in his life, has been able to find work and thus make himself worthy.… Read more »

Another Fine Mess — A History of American Film Comedy

From Film Comment (November-December 2010). — J.R.

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Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy

 

By Saul Austerlitz Chicago Review Press, $24.95

 

As an audacious and ambitious canonizing gesture, this highly readable critical volume comes closer to Sarris’s The American Cinema than it does to Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, if only because the author can always be counted on to have seen the work he writes about. Omissions are of course inevitable, and even though I don’t know Austerlitz’s age, I suspect that most of the lacunae I notice in the creative figures he selects for his 30 chapters and 105 shorter entries — such as Fred Allen, Danny Kaye, Martha Raye, and Red Skelton — are generationally determined for both of us; older and younger readers will come up with other missing names. But the amount that he actually covers is impressive.

Sometimes the organizational strategies get weird: the chapter on Dustin Hoffman, delving perceptively into the Jewish aspects of his persona, also manages to be a chapter about Warren Beatty. Some of the research is sloppy: Orson Welles couldn’t have “credited” The Power and the Glory as an “inspiration” if he maintained that he’d never seen it.Read more »

For Your Eyes Only [on Beatty's DICK TRACY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 15, 1990).

Regarding Peter Biskind’s hyperbolic overestimation of Beatty, then and now — matched in a way by Beatty’s own jokey comparison of Biskind to Trotsky, as reported by Biskind in his recent and sometimes unwittingly hilarious Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (2010) — it seems that this has only grown over the past 20 or so years. In his Introduction, Biskind rhetorically asks, “how many defining motion pictures does a filmmaker have to make to be considered great?” and then rhetorically answers, “very few,” going on to assign only one or two each to Welles, Renoir, and Kazan, and just one to Peckinpah, but no less than five to Beatty, evidently regarding Bugsy as a towering achievement alongside such trifles as The Magnificent Ambersons, French Cancan, or Wild River. But this is the same writer who can call Kaleidoscope “James Bond lite,” allowing one to ponder what he might actually regard as James Bond heavy — or even as James Bond normal. — J.R.

DICK TRACY ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Warren Beatty

Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

With Warren Beatty, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headly, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, and Charles Durning.… Read more »

Rocking the Vote

This appeared in  the May 22, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Bulworth

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Warren Beatty

Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser

With Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Paul Sorvino, Don Cheadle, and Amiri Baraka.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

“Warren Beatty co-wrote, directed, and stars in this satire about a self-destructive U.S. senator using race-baiting tactics to get reelected.” I assume Mark Caro hadn’t seen Bulworth when he wrote this capsule for the Chicago Tribune‘s May 10 summer movie preview. It only goes to show the risks you run when you try to make a movie that tells the truth politically and then limit this “truth” to a series of sound bites; sooner or later that form of TV abbreviation is going to bite you back.

More precisely, Bulworth is about a Democratic senator from California (Beatty), up for reelection in 1996, who is having a nervous breakdown, takes out a contract on himself, and then finds himself blurting out the truth instead of the usual packaged lies during his campaign. He hasn’t slept for days, and after throwing caution to the winds and going off to a hip-hop club with Nina (Halle Berry) and two other young women from South Central LA, he starts parsing out all his public statements in rap, scandalizing his staff and various media people with the form and content of his forthright declarations.… Read more »

Critical Distance [on CONTEMPT]

From the Chicago Reader (September 5, 1997). — J.R.

Contempt

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, and Godard.

Almost exactly 33 years ago, in October 1964, the critical reception of Jean-Luc Godard’s widest American release of his career and his most expensive picture to date was overwhelmingly negative. But now that Contempt, showing this week at the Music Box, is being rereleased as an art film — in a brand-new print that’s three minutes longer — the critical responses have been almost as overwhelmingly positive. It’s tempting to say in explanation that we’re more sophisticated in 1997 than we were in 1964 — that we’ve absorbed or at least caught up with some of Godard’s innovations — but I don’t think this adequately or even correctly accounts for the difference in critical response. Despite all the current reviews that treat Le mépris as if it were some form of serene classical art, it’s every bit as transgressive now as it was when it first appeared, and maybe more so. But because it’s being packaged as an art movie rather than a mainstream release — because Godard is a venerable master of 66 rather than an unruly upstart of 33 — we have different expectations.… Read more »

On the Internet, No One Can Hear You Think (or, Datelessness Equals Cluelessness)

The avoidance or frequent absence of history on the Internet is often a problem, but I’ve rarely seen it exploited so shamelessly and cripplingly as it is in a post supposedly “celebrating” Godard’s 82th birthday that quotes fifteen filmmakers on the subject of Godard, including Godard himself, arranged alphabetically from Chantal Akerman to Wim Wenders.

Let’s start with the first sentence in the first quotation, from Akerman: “You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner.” Is this the Godard of For Ever Mozart, the Godard of Film Socialisme, or a much earlier Godard?  It’s impossible to understand, much less evaluate what Akerman is saying, without knowing the answer to this question. Pretend that this doesn’t matter and you’re pointlessly sliming both Akerman and Godard, for no good reason.

Five quotes later, we get, “Luis Buñuel: I’ll give him two years more, he is just a fashion.” Obviously, this statement was made when Buñuel was still alive, which means he had to have said it at some point between, say, 1960 and 1983. Lots of leg room in there — about 30 features’ worth.

And one quote later, from Godard himself: “I am not an auteur, well, not now anyway.” When is “now”?Read more »

Jack Reed’s Christmas Puppy: Reflections on REDS

From the Spring 1982 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Jack Reed’s Christmas Puppy: Reflections on REDS

1: On the Unreliability of Memory

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire

“Was it 1913 or ’17?” wonders the first ancient voice, male and faltering, after a burst of vigorous ragtime has faded out, before the opening credits have left the screen. “I can’t remember now — I’m beginning to forget all the people I used to know.” “Do I remember Louise Bryant?” asks the voice of another male oldster. “Why, of course; I couldn’t forget her if I tried.” A third witness of that period, female, appears on the right of the screen against a black background, lit like a Richard Avedon portrait. “I can’t tell you,” she replies to an unheard question. “I might sort of scratch my memory, but not at the moment . . . you know, things go and come back again.”

At once the conscience and the Greek chorus of REDS, the thirty-two “witnesses” who prattle and reminisce about the real characters and events — John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill, Emma Goldman, World     War I, the Russian Revolution — are immediately perceived as human, charming, and indispensable;     without them, the film and its achievement could not even begin to exist.… Read more »

Another Day, Another Genre [MATCH POINT]

From the January 13, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Match Point

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton

Movie gossip writer Peter Biskind described Woody Allen in the December 2005 Vanity Fair as “an artist without honor in his own country” (apparently Biskind’s ecstatic write-up in Vanity Fair doesn’t count). He went on to compare Allen’s fate to those of some of Allen’s heroes, including Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, and Charlie Chaplin (assuming Chaplin’s “own country” was the U.S.). He added that Allen, who’s released 35 features to date, has made at least ten masterpieces “that can hold their own against” any of the four he credited to Robert Altman or the three he assigned to Francois Truffaut.

Altman, Bergman, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Welles have changed our view of the world and of movies. Allen, despite his output and great one-liners and excellent taste in cinematographers, hasn’t. “If I was the teacher, I’d give myself a B,” he modestly told Biskind. Given his indebtedness to Bergman and Federico Fellini, that B would have to be for effort and polish, not originality.… Read more »

Silents Are Golden (Silent Ozu)

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.

Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective

at the Gene Siskel Film Center

It’s no longer controversial to assert that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-’63) is one of the greatest filmmakers ever — certainly one of the top dozen and possibly the greatest of those who’ve focused on family life. But getting a fix on his work remains far from easy. Only 34 of his 50-odd films appear to have survived, and two features exist only in fragments. The Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective, which started last week and runs through March 3, includes 25 features, and some of his other works, including a seldom-shown documentary short, might be screened later if the features draw big enough crowds.

One of the films showing this week, Tokyo Story (1953) — the first Ozu film to have been seen widely in the West, and still the best known and most highly regarded — is a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his work. (So are Equinox Flower and Good Morning, two gorgeous color films from the late 50s, showing later this month.) But it has led many critics to make unfair broad generalizations about Ozu’s style and content, to claim that his films are slow and conservative, his technique minimalist.… Read more »

War of the Poses (OLEANNA)

From the November 11, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

*** OLEANNA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by David Mamet

With William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.

David Mamet’s four features to date, none of them realistic, are all concerned to a greater or lesser extent with con games. Ultimately what one thinks of any of them has a lot to do with which side of the con one winds up on — which proves to be a matter of how one relates to the style as well as the content. Language is the major instrument of both seduction and deception in these films, and Mamet’s stylized use of it, playing on its ellipses and ambiguities as well as its more abstract and musical qualities, often deceives and seduces the audience. So how one responds to these characters has a lot to do with how one reacts to these language games.

To my mind, House of Games and the first half of Things Change are seductive (if brittle) fantasies about the allure and danger of spinning seductive fantasies; the second half of Things Change and Homicide are outsized sentimental bluffs. All three films star Joe Mantegna, are about criminals, and bear some relation to Hollywood genres; but where one places one’s trust and emotional allegiances is different in each case.… Read more »

What’s Sex Got to Do With It? (THE HOURS AND TIMES & A TALE OF SPRINGTIME)

From the Chicago Reader (November 6, 1992). — J.R.

THE HOURS AND TIMES

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Christopher Munch

With David Angus, Ian Hart, Stephanie Pack, Robin McDonald, Sergio Moreno, and Unity Grimwood.

A TALE OF SPRINGTIME

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Eric Rohmer

With Anne Teyssère, Hugues Quester, Florence Darel, Eloise Bennett, and Sophie Robin.

It’s easy enough to understand why gay and lesbian film festivals exist, especially at this juncture in history, but I can’t say I’m happy about what they do to classifying films. After all, we don’t have festivals devoted to heterosexuals or dead white men or Catholics or intellectuals or Republicans or Democrats, and I sincerely doubt that any good film should be categorized in so parochial a fashion.

By the time this review appears, we’ll probably have elected a president — our first — who professes to consider gays and lesbians part of the American mainstream, not a “special” category. This fact alone prompts some consideration of what it means to perpetuate such categories, in a film festival or in a review.

Though it’s natural for an oppressed minority to band together — for consciousness raising, among other reasons — the meaning of such events to the public at large is something else.… Read more »

Letter from Chicago

This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.

Letter from Chicago

Dear Trafic,

Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago).  Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »

Through the Past, Darkly [GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI & THE CRUCIBLE]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1996). — J.R.

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Ghosts of Mississippi

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by Lewis Colick

With Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Ladd, Bonnie Bartlett, Bill Cobbs, William H. Macy, Virginia Madsen, and Michael O’Keefe.

The Crucible

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Written by Arthur Miller

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughan, and Karron Graves.

“This story is true,” reads the opening title of Ghosts of Mississippi, a movie about the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, and the conviction of his murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, which took a little more than 30 years.

“This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian,” Arthur Miller wrote in a note prefacing his 1953 play The Crucible, which depicts events that occurred in 1692, and which has now been turned into a movie adapted by Miller. Miller went on to detail the ways he’d changed history — he sometimes fused many people into one character, and he made a central character, Abigail, older.… Read more »